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The Globe and Mail

Elderly racing legend no retiree behind the wheel

Lorraine Sommerfeld and Vic Elford

Lorraine Sommerfeld/The Globe and Mail

It's easy to miss the unassuming gentleman sitting quietly in the restaurant. After you learn he's Vic Elford, it's difficult to stop discovering nuggets of information about one of the most famous car racers to dominate the sport.

He's raced every Porsche 917 ever made; he did the stunt driving in the movie Le Mans, at the request of star Steve McQueen ("Oh, Steve was very nice."). He's raced under nearly every badge and established records at nearly every track in nearly every form of racing. Now 78 and retired to Florida, this Englishman sits quietly in the room, taking a long view of the chatter that goes on around him.

As lunch gets under way, I ask if he'll drive with me on the track. He seems delighted, and I decide I'll have other opportunities to eat other lunches, but I'll never have this chance again. At the track, he inserts his tall frame into the driver's seat of the Carrera 4S, and we both reach for seatbelts. He hasn't been on this ice and snowbound Mecaglisse track in Quebec yet, nor have I.

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As we trail behind the pace Cayenne that will lead us to the pit area, Elford looks down at the shifter. "I want it in second," he says, staring at it. Uncertain of bossing the boss, I push it into manual; there is no clutch. I point to the paddle shifters. "You shift there, gear up on the right, down on the left. "He looks at the paddles, then back at me. Yes, I silently agree, this is how they do it now. We're both grinning.

As we head off, there is no warmup. Full on, track unknown, the man is instantly transformed. Gone is the calm demeanour, the laid-back smile. After a minute or so, never taking his eyes off the track, he says it's not right. I glance down, realizing I've forgotten to take off the traction control. I hit the button, apologizing. Yes, this is how they do it now.

Lap after lap, his speed increases. The car slides like the magic pendulum we've been hearing about, Elford responding instantly to incremental changes in the track as it ices up. I'm glancing at the speed in various turns, curious to know how I'll match up when I'm driving again. Later, there is more than one area I will never get the speed he used on his first lap of this unknown track.

It's exhilarating. I drove with rally legend Rauno Aaltonen – the Flying Finn – last year and experienced a similar thing; a transformation, a veritable time travel moment with these men who triumphed during a era when the drivers performed what so much technology now provides. I ask if he knows Aaltonen; "Oh, yes, I've known him for over 50 years." Later, I ask Elford when he learned to drive. He said during the Second World War, he was sent to live in the English countryside with family. At age 10, this legend started his career on a tractor in a farmer's field.

After 10 laps or so, we head in to join the others. I'm quiet; this is a really amazing gift, and I don't want it to end. Coasting to a stop, Elford looks down at the shifter. I hesitate once more, then push it from manual mode back to automatic and up to park. He looks at me and smiles as he speaks.

"Good thing one of us knows how to drive this thing."

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